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Thoughts on Grit

October 01, 2012

I have not had the opportunity to read Paul Tough’s newest book on “grit”1. I have, however, read Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine article on grit and recently listened to an EconTalk podcast where he discussed How Children Succeed.

The thrust of Tough’s argument, if I were to be so bold, is that there is a definable set of non-cognitive skills, called “grit”, that are at least as important as academic achievement in determining long-term positive outcomes for kids. Great schools, therefore, would do well to focus on developing these habits as much and as intentionally as they do developing content knowledge and academic prowess. This, according to Tough, is a big part of the “magic sauce”2of “No Excuses” schools like KIPP. They teach “grit” as a part of their intense behavioral management and culture efforts.

I think Tough is an engaging writer and has a great knack for finding some of the most interesting research not often read in education policy circles, but which is clearly relevant. While listening to the EconLog podcast I found myself often disagreeing with his interpretations/conclusions. But more often, I found myself desperately wishing for a different, slower format because so much of this work begged deeper questioning and conversation. What better reason could there be to buy and read a book-length treatment of these ideas?

Anyway, I thought I’d share just a few of my thoughts on “grit” based on this interview and the earlier New York Times Magazine piece.

Teaching conscientiousness in a society that has been so unconscientious

It seems fairly obvious that people who don’t “play by the rules” and aren’t easily motivated to conform to certain habits are less likely to be successful. It is unsurprising that Tough finds research that suggests that there is a “grit” gap between rich and poor. I want to know more about why, and I have, what I hope, is one interesting idea of what contributes to the “grit gap”.

I believe that deterioration of the built environment, especially among the urban and truly rural poor, is a major contributor to low grit. Some parts of this country with high concentrations of poverty look– bombed out. Roads are littered with deep potholes and scars. The houses have chipped paint, rotting wood exterior elements, and unkept yards. Storefronts were built decades ago on the cheap, aged poorly, and were never updated. Their schools lack good lighting, decent HVAC systems, and functioning toilets. There is no pride found in any of these spaces.

Children growing up in poverty do not see neighbors obsessing over their lawn. They do not watch one house after another repaint and reface their exteriors to ensure they weren’t the ugliest house on the block. They do not see brand new cars, fresh asphalt roads, and schools that resemble palaces. I don’t think virtually any of this has to do with the people who live in these neighborhoods. I do think it reflects the pathetic state that society has deemed acceptable, so long as it remains sight unseen by those with resources.

Growing up in poverty often means being surrounded by spaces that society has left to rot. How can these children learn conscientiousness when the privileged have been so unconscientious?

The M&M Study

Tough mentions a study where students first take an IQ test under normal conditions. These same students are then given an IQ test but are rewarded with an M&M each time they get a question right. This tiny immediate incentive resulted in a massive, 1.8SD improvement in mean IQ. 3 The implications are fascinating. It demonstrates the importance of motivation even while taking a test that is supposedly measuring an intractable, permanent attribute people have. This seems obvious and is fairly well known, but forgotten in many policy circles. I have often lamented that the New England Common Assessment Program has a sizable downward bias when measuring achievement because the exam is low stakes for students. The dramatic decrease in performance observed on the 11th grade NECAP math exam is almost certainly in part due to lower intrinsic motivation amongst high school students compared to their 8th grade and younger selves.

There are some students that have no measurable response to the M&M incentive. These students are exhibiting qualities of Tough’s “grit”, conscientiousness that leads one to do well simply because they are being measured, or perhaps because there is no reason to do something if it is not going to be done well. I believe that there is also a bias against schools with concentrated poverty because of an uneven distribution of “grit”– suburban middle to upper class students with college ambitions will likely be the students who will sit down and try hard on a test just because they are being measured whereas urban students living in poverty are far less likely to exert that same effort for an exercise with no immediate or clear long-term consequences.

All of this would be pretty blasé were it not for the more distal outcomes observed. The group of students that did not respond to the M&M incentives had significantly and practically better outcomes than those that responded to the incentive. I can’t recall exactly which outcomes were a part of this study, but Tough cites several independent studies that measure a similar set of qualities and find far better outcomes with GPA, graduation from high school, post-secondary degree attainment, juvenile delinquency or adult criminal activity, and wages.

Tough’s interpretation of these results seems to mirror my feelings on grading. Low stakes testing (or in this case, no-incentive testing) has omitted variable bias which leads to observing students who lack “grit” as lower achieving than they are. The test results are still excellent predictors of later success but lack validity as a pure measure of academic achievement. My complaint about grades that use behavior, attendance, and participation4does not stem from their lack of validity at predicting later outcomes. These grades are excellent predictors of later outcomes. Rather, it stems from these grade conflating two very different qualities into a single measure, making it far more difficult to design appropriate interventions and supports that target individual needs.

Tough seems thinks this means that high stakes placed on test scores over emphasizes one quality over the other when both are very important. I disagree. I feel that high stakes test scores recreate the M&M incentive and leads to a better measure of academic ability. That is not to say that we don’t need to cultivate and measure non-cognitive skills. It just means that trying to measure both at once5results in less clear and actionable interpretations.

Is the “grit” problem properly described as a failure to recognize long-term benefits?

Repeatedly both Tough and host Russ Roberts point to the need to provide students who lack grit more information on the long-term benefits of “doing well”. For example, Tough cites KIPP’s posting of the economic benefits of a bachelor’s degree on walls in the halls of their schools as a way to build grit. Somewhat left unsaid is the idea that grit-like behaviors may not describe some kind of “intrinsic” motivation, but instead represent an understanding of the long-term extrinsic benefits of certain actions. Grit really means understanding that, “If I behave appropriately, I will gain the respect of this authority and earn greater autonomy/responsibility,” or perhaps, “Doing my homework each night will teach me good habits of work and help me to learn this academic material so I can succeed in college and get a better job.”

Can grit really be just a heuristic developed to better respond to long-term incentives?

I am not sure. I am equally unsure that the activities of a “No Excuses” school actually generate the long-term benefits of “grit”. If grit is a powerful heuristic to optimize long-term outcomes, how do we know that many short-term incentives that build behaviors toward academic success mean that students better respond to a broad set of long-term outcomes? Should we believe that behavior bucks/demerit systems, constant small corrections, repeatedly stating the goals of education and its benefits, and other KIPP-like culture-building strategies build a bend toward acting in ways that maximize long-term outcomes? Do students aspire to college because they have internalized its importance, or do the stack of short-term incentives build a desire for sprokets, wignuts, and widgets that just happened to be called a “bachelor’s degree” in this case?


  1. I use “grit” a lot in this post. Please insert quotes each time. It got obnoxious reading it with the quotes actually in place [return]
  2. My term, not his. Probably stolen from one of my colleagues who uses this term a lot. [return]
  3. From 79 to 97 according to EconTalk [return]
  4. among other non-cognitive, non-academic skills and activities [return]
  5. Or inadvertently measuring both at once, as many low-stakes standardized tests do [return]